The Rhetoric of Social Construction (and Thomas)
- It seems to me that Bill Arnal's discussion of how GTh's
fundamental doctrine of language discloses some important clues
about the nature of the community in which the gospel originated,
or was redacted [The Rhetoric of Social Construction: Language
and Society in the Gospel of Thomas]. It invites a re-energized
reading of Thomas. He suggests that, "...insight into Thomas'
understanding of language or interpretation may allow for a
greater refinement of our comprehension of the authors'
perception of the world, and of society around them." The
importance of aspiring to an improved (and congenial)
understanding of both Thomas' use of language and its social
setting cannot be underestimated, in my opinion. Unless we do so,
we are sentenced to endless rounds of debate over the theories of
literary dependency, date and authorship, provenance and
quasi-theological hermeneutics. In short, this article may be an
integral part of the manifesto of those who march under the
banner of "Thomas Autonomy."
So much for the accolades. Now on to some details.
In Section II, Bill contrasts Philo's doctrine of interpretation
with that of Thomas. He observes:
"While Philo appears to claim that language-- and especially the
language of divine revelation-- conceals a meaning not
immediately or literally present on its surface, but nevertheless
fundamentally compatible with it, Thomas views ordinary language
as _concealing_ [emphasis his] the true meaning of divine
revelation: the sayings of Jesus are 'secret' or 'hidden.' There
are not, as in Philo, layers of (compatible) meaning ..., but
rather _a_ meaning [emphasis his], apparently fixed and single,
to [be] _found_ [emphasis his] beneath the text."
I'm reluctant to embarrass myself by saying how many times I've
re-read the above statement and failed to grasp the point. I am
completely unable to comprehend the difference between these two
different kinds of concealment. In both cases "meaning" does not
reside in the text itself, but beneath it. What *seems* to be
different is EITHER that Philo presupposes that the "concealed
meaning" of the text exists in multiple "layers" that become less
opaque as one goes from "top to bottom" OR that there is a single
"concealed" meaning, the clarity of which depends on the
hermeneutical proficiency of the reader/interpreter. By contrast,
Bill says clearly that there is but a single meaning beneath the
text of Thomas, but what remains unclear to me is the means by
which the reader uncovers that meaning. I THINK he says that this
hermeneutic occurs at the simplest level of cognition, i.e.,
simply by "... looking at the surface of things, their obvious
qualities." That which triggers the move from "ignorance to
understanding," or "agnosia to gnosia," is the deprecation of
that which one inspects.
If so, does this mean that Thomas requires a certain "cognitive
dissonance" to be present in the reader (if the reader hopes to
find the meaning of the words contained therein)? Similarly, is
the purpose of Thomas to be a paradigm (or catechism) for
invoking cognitive dissonance?
Humble Maine Woodsman